Program Notes


BORN: June 11, 1864. Munich, Bavaria

DIED: September 8, 1949.  Garmisch, Germany

COMPOSED: Begun May 1888, completed on September 30 of that year. Don Juan is dedicated “to my dear friend Ludwig Thuille,” an Austrian composer most likely to be remembered now as the teacher of Ernest Bloch

WORLD PREMIERE: November 11, 1888 in Weimar. Strauss conducted

US PREMIERE: October 30, 1891, with Arthur Nikisch leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1913. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2016. Juraj Valčuha conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 18 mins

THE BACKSTORY The fountain of sixteenth notes that opens Don Juan and the headlong melody it releases exemplify an exhilarating or­chestral virtuosity entirely characteristic of its composer. While the twenty-four-year-old Strauss enjoyed challenging performers to their limits (the eighty-four-year-old Strauss would enjoy it just as much), his primary intention was less to frighten the Weimar fiddlers out of their wits than to paint a portrait and create an atmosphere. Strauss had the gift of painting a character before us, seemingly in one stroke: Think of Till Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote, the unnamed hero of Ein Heldenleben, the infant Dr. Franz Strauss with his parents and uncles and aunts, Salome, Herod, Clytemnestra, Baron Ochs, Sophie von Faninal, and a dozen more, each defined in a single telling musical gesture.

In the summer of 1888, fresh from an Italian vacation, Strauss worked simultaneously on Macbeth and Don Juan. Macbeth gave him trouble, and the piece, whose final version he finished only in March 1891, is interesting and admirable rather than convincing and inevitable. We can still think of the character Macbeth without Strauss coming instantly to mind. Not so with Don Juan. Strauss had found the knack. This portrait is stunningly convincing, and the wild opening rush of violins represents Richard Strauss defining his distinctive voice as much as it does the Nijinsky-like leap of the Don onto our imagined stage.

The seeds for the Don Juan project were planted in 1885, when Strauss and Hans von Bülow (whom Strauss had just begun to serve as assistant conductor at Meiningen) saw a performance in Frankfurt of Paul Heyse's Don Juans Ende. The direct source, however, is an unfinished verse play from 1844 by Nicolaus Franz Niembsch von Strehlenau, who because of Hapsburg censorship took a nom de plume, Nicolaus Lenau. The printed score, first published in June 1890, gives three excerpts from the poem as preface, and at the early performances Strauss asked that these lines be printed in the program. Later he disdained such guides. The music being both lucid and stimulating to the imagination, it is easy to enjoy Don Juan without ever reading a word of Lenau. The music analyst Donald Tovey goes so far as to maintain that "study of the whole poem will be much more illuminating in the light of the music than study of the music in the light of the poem."

THE MUSIC The quick succession of ideas after the propulsive opening evokes Don Juan as he rushes forth in hope of conquest. An ardent phrase for the full orchestra and a coyly pathetic response suggest a passing flirtation, but almost immediately matters become more serious. A wonderfully scored chord, full but triple-piano, is a screen against which an inviting violin solo is projected. The ardent phrase now has its day as Strauss gives us a torrid love scene. To hear it another way, he is completing an absolutely orthodox sonata-form exposition. But Don Juan cannot—can never—stay. The opening upward rush, now quiet and in the cellos, interferes as a disturbing question, and though the lady tries to cast the spell once more, he moves on.

This is the development, based on the Don's complex of themes. A musical interruption returns us to the story. Passionate entreaties (violas and cellos) and sighing responses (flute) indicate another encounter. Sighs give way to surrender, and Strauss gives us a second love scene, this one of lovely and touching tenderness.

Again, no dream can last. Don Juan wakes, and a new patch is added to his portrait, a proud and famous theme for all the horns in unison. The development continues with music at once jittery and suggestive of carnival. Earlier themes appear as ghosts, depression seems complete and all-conquering. But Don Juan draws on the extraordinary and sinister energies that drive him, and, with Strauss's sense of drama and pacing at its most acute, the music plunges into the recapitulation, a last review of the Don's themes.

The lines from Lenau's play that Strauss selected do not tell us that Don Juan meets his death in a duel. He has killed a nobleman, and, coming across the old man's statue in a graveyard, mockingly invites him to dine. In the parallel episode in Da Ponte/Mozart's Don Giovanni, the statue appears, grips the Don by the hand, and drags him to his hellish fate. In Lenau, it is the nobleman's son, Don Pedro, who appears to avenge his father. It is a fight that Don Juan could easily win, but he does not care to: "Der Brennstoff ist verzehrt, und kalt und/dunkel wird es auf dem Herd" ("The fuel is all consumed and the hearth is cold and dark"). One of the most thrilling silences in all music is followed by a long chord of A minor, violins making a tremulous descent, two trumpets cutting in with a chillingly dissonant F. The phrase of passionate entreaty is reversed to limp defeated descent, violas emit a last shudder, and a career is over.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.


More About the Music 

Recordings: Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony (London)  |  Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra (Sony)  |  George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Essential Classics)

ReadingsRichard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on His Life and Works, by Norman Del Mar (Chilton)  |  Richard Strauss, by Michael Kennedy (Schirmer)  |  Richard Strauss, by Matthew Boyden (Trafalgar Square)  |  “First-Rate Second-Class Composer,” by Larry Rothe, in For the Love of Music (Oxford University Press)

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